होम Journal of Relationships Research Intimacy Through Casual Sex: Relational Context of Sexual Activity and Affectionate Behaviours

Intimacy Through Casual Sex: Relational Context of Sexual Activity and Affectionate Behaviours

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Journal of Relationships Research
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10.1017/jrr.2018.10
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Journal of Relationships
Research
cambridge.org/jrr

Intimacy Through Casual Sex: Relational
Context of Sexual Activity and Affectionate
Behaviours
Justin R. Garcia1,2, Amanda N. Gesselman1, Sean G. Massey3,

Research Article
Cite this article: Garcia JR, Gesselman AN,
Massey SG, Seibold-Simpson SM, Merriwether
AM (2018). Intimacy Through Casual Sex:
Relational Context of Sexual Activity and
Affectionate Behaviours. Journal of
Relationships Research 9, e12, 1–10. https://
doi.org/10.1017/jrr.2018.10
Received: 16 February 2018
Revised: 2 July 2018
Accepted: 5 July 2018
Key words:
casual sex; hookup; romantic relationship;
cuddling; intimacy; affiliative behaviour;
affectionate behaviour
Address for correspondence:
Justin R. Garcia, The Kinsey Institute, Indiana
University, 150 S. Woodlawn Avenue, Lindley
Hall 428, Bloomington, IN, 47405, USA.
Email: jusrgarc@indiana.edu

© The Author(s) 2018

Susan M. Seibold-Simpson4 and Ann M. Merriwether5,6
1

The Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA; 2Department of Gender Studies, Indiana
University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA; 3Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, Binghamton University,
Binghamton, New York, USA; 4Department of Nursing, SUNY Broome Community College, Binghamton, New York,
USA; 5Department of Psychology, Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York, USA and 6Department of Human
Development, Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York, USA

Abstract
Little is known about the role of affectionate behaviours — factors traditionally understood
within the context of romantic relationships — in uncommitted ‘casual sex’ encounters. In
a sample of U.S. undergraduate emerging adults aged 18–25 years (N = 639) we conducted
a preliminary internet-based questionnaire investigation into the role of affectionate behaviours — operationalised here as cuddling, spending the night and cuddling, foreplay, and
eye gazing — across two sexual relationship contexts: (committed) traditional romantic relationships and (uncommitted) casual sex en; counters. While affectionate behaviours were
desired more often in romantic relationships than in casual sexual encounters, many respondents (both men and women) engaged in these affectionate behaviours during casual sexual
encounters as well. This was especially pronounced in those who expressed a preference for
casual sex encounters over romantic relationships: in a casual sex context these participants
were about 1.5 times as likely to cuddle, 1.5 times as likely to spend the night and cuddle,
and nearly 5 times as likely to engage in foreplay with a partner. The current study emphasises
the importance of considering relationship context in sexuality and relationship research, and
the need for further theoretical and empirical research on dimensions of intimacy, including
affection, in people’s diverse romantic and sexual lives.

Contemporary casual sex behaviour, along with the social and cultural representations surrounding such behaviours, has taken root throughout North America as socially normative (for reviews
see Bogle, 2008; Garcia, Reiber, Massey, & Merriwether, 2012; Wade, 2017). Based on studies in
the United States and Canada, a majority (60–85%) of college students have had a casual sex
‘hookup’ at some point (Garcia et al., 2012). While the pervasiveness of sexual hookup culture
has been well documented, the colloquial terminology surrounding hookup sexual activity is
ambiguous — and perhaps strategically so — referring more to the uncommitted nature of
these encounters than to the specific behaviours occurring within this context (Garcia et al.,
2012; Hatfield, Hutchison, Bensman, Young, & Rapson, 2012). In addition to hookups, if one
includes the varieties of uncommitted sex described by emerging adults (Claxton & van
Dulmen, 2013; Wentland & Reissing, 2011), such as ‘booty calls’ (i.e., late night visits for sex)
and ‘friends with benefits’ (i.e., ongoing sexual but supposedly not romantic relationships), the
rates of casual sex encounters would be considerably greater. While often couched under a
label of ‘hooking up’, reports of the specific sexual behaviours occurring in hookups also vary
widely, ranging from only kissing and heavy petting to oral sex to penetrative vaginal and/or
anal intercourse. Research on sexual hookups has tended to focus on sexual behaviours rather
than other interpersonal factors related to dimensions of intimacy, such as affectionate behaviours, and related factors that have received attention in studies of romantic relationships.
The existing literature on sexual hookups and on casual sex more broadly has tended to
employ operational definitions of casual sex experiences that specifically focus on the uncommitted relationship context between sexual partners, rather than on the specific behaviours
engaged in (Garcia, Seibold-Simpson, Massey, & Merriwether, 2015). While researchers
have certainly collected reports of specific sexual behaviours engaged in during casual sex
activity, to date research has not examined casual sex as a site for affectionate behaviours
that may occur as a function of desired or experienced intimacy in a sexual encounter. In
the current study, we examine emerging adults’ propensities to engage in affectionate behaviours, comparing attitudes in hypothetical contexts of an uncommitted casual sex encounter
and a traditional committed romantic relationship. Through this initial inquiry, we aim to provide a more nuanced perspective on the behaviours and psychoemotional factors occurring in

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2

emerging adults’ casual sex experiences, and illustrate that conceptualising the ‘no strings attached’ aspect of casual sex as meaning no intimacy or emotional engagement may be unnecessarily
limiting our understanding of human sexuality and relationships.
Sexual Hookup Culture Among Emerging Adults
For many young people in North America, emerging adulthood —
a period spanning approximately age 18 years through the
mid-twenties, which coincides with traditional age for college enrolment — is a period of negotiating their sexual and gender
identity (Arnett, 2004). For many, this period is also one of
semi-independence and increasing freedom from supervision,
with continued care and input from one’s family, co-occurring
with increased autonomy. This transition to more autonomy
now generally takes place with fewer responsibilities and concerns
of traditional compulsory heterosexual partnering and family formation that have structured this age range in past decades. At the
same time, the regulation of dating practices among emerging
adults has loosened considerably over the past few decades, largely
with respect to the declining role of parental supervision and parental influence in young people’s romantic and sexual lives (Bailey,
1988; Garcia et al., 2015; Stinson, 2010). Further, the onset of
puberty and sexual maturation is occurring at earlier ages while
first marriage and first reproduction are occurring later than previous generations, leading to a gap wherein individuals are freer to
explore various aspects of their intimate lives (Bogle, 2008; Garcia
& Reiber, 2008). Moreover, young people today have access to a
range of potential romantic and sexual partners to choose from,
enabled by internet availability and new mobile technologies
(Finkel, Eastwick, Karney, Reis, & Sprecher, 2012; Lenhart,
Smith, & Anderson, 2015; Slater, 2014). These aggregated changes
have led to the emergence of an unprecedented moment in human
sexual development, where young adults are conducting their sexual lives in ways not seen in the past.
While casual sex behaviour is not new (Garcia et al., 2015;
Hatfield et al., 2012), the way it is represented, understood, and
experienced by young people today suggests the emergence of a
new sexual culture. Although many emerging adults still report
having romantic relationships in addition to casual sex experiences
(Bradshaw, Kahn, & Saville, 2010; Fielder, Carey, & Carey, 2013),
public moral panics about the implications of casual sex abound.
These concerns are due largely to the putative erosion of romance
and intimacy, and the worry that young people are in favour of
one-off encounters that involve sexual gratification and nothing
more (e.g., Yglesias, 2013; Sales, 2015). However, little is known
about the meaning and motivations for these casual encounters,
and whether such experiences of casual sex do in fact confirm
this intimacy-free narrative. Because of the contemporary normalcy
of sexual hookups for emerging adults and the general understanding of sexual activity as an intimate and connective act that tends to
involve more than just bodily pleasure, some emerging adults may
be integrating intimacy-motivated behaviours into their casual sex
encounters that would typically be understood as exclusive to the
romantic relationship context. Consequently, a deeper understanding of how emerging adults behave with respect to
affectionate behaviours (e.g., cuddling), across varied sexual contexts is needed.
Intimacy-Motivated Sexual Activity
There are a variety of psychosocial outcomes found in the sexual
and relationship science literature that can be tied to both sexual

Justin R. Garcia et al.

and intimacy motivations. For instance, in studies asking emerging adults about their experience of orgasm during sexual hookups, some reported that the context of a casual sex encounter
lacked the level of intimacy both desired and needed for them
to reach orgasm (Armstrong, England, & Fogarty, 2012; Garcia,
Seibold-Simpson, Massey, & Merriwether, 2018). Others have
suggested that complex motivational dynamics (including goals
of sex, intimacy, and relationships) are at play within, or as a
result of, seemingly uncommitted sexual encounters (e.g.,
Garcia & Fisher, 2015; Garcia & Reiber, 2008; Regan & Dreyer,
1999). In one large U.S. national sample of adults, over one in
three men and nearly one in four women indicated that a onenight stand or a friends-with-benefits situation had turned into
a committed romantic relationship (Garcia & Fisher, 2015).
Taken together, these findings suggest that for some people,
engaging in intimacy-motivated behaviours typically understood
as relationship-oriented may create more positive sexual experiences in casual sex contexts and, for some, may be providing
the foundations of pair-bonding (Garcia & Fisher, 2015).
Research has shown that people express a wide range of
motives for engaging in sexual activity, with interpersonal reasons
tied to partner closeness, including intimacy expression and
maintenance, commonly reported (Meston & Buss, 2007). In
order to examine the role of intimacy across relational contexts
including in casual sex encounters, it is critical to consider various
motivations that have been reported for engaging in casual sex. In
one study of 105 U.S. college students, both men and women reported a series of motives for engaging in casual sex (Regan &
Dreyer, 1999), including 89% of participants (85.4% of women
and 90.6% of men) noting personal or intraindividual reasons
(e.g., sexual desire, sexual experimentation, physical pleasure,
alcohol use), and 39% (58.5% of women and 26.6% of men) indicating interpersonal or relational reasons (e.g., attractiveness,
desire for long-term commitment from sex partner). Another
study of 507 U.S. college students asked participants to report
the multiple reasons they engage in sexual hookups (Garcia &
Reiber, 2008). While 89% of participants noted physical gratification as a motivation, 54% identified emotional gratification, and
51% indicated a desire to initiate a romantic relationship. In addition, although only 6% of participants (4.35% of men, 8.19% of
women) expected a romantic relationship as an outcome, 37%
of participants (28.99% of men, 42.94% of women) identified a
romantic relationship as the ideal outcome (Garcia & Reiber,
2008). These findings suggest that, despite deviation from traditional conceptions of courtship and romantic relationships, sexual activity in the context of casual sex encounters may at times be
motivated by a desire for intimacy distinct from the desire for a
romantic relationship.
Gender, Intimacy, and Casual Sex
Existing literature suggests that gender plays a complex role in
shaping attitudes toward casual sex. On average, men have more
permissive attitudes toward, and greater interest in, casual sex
than women (see Oliver & Hyde, 1993; see also Petersen &
Hyde, 2010). Interestingly, however, rates of engaging in casual
sex tend to show few gender differences, and several studies examining the motives underlying casual sex show little to no gender differences (i.e., Garcia & Reiber, 2008; Lyons, Manning, Longmore, &
Giordano, 2014). This is despite indications that casual sex encounters pose greater risks for women (Garcia et al., 2015) — risks that
can include unintended or unwanted pregnancy (Seibold-Simpson,

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Journal of Relationships Research

Gesselman, Garcia, Massey, & Merriwether, 2017), sexual violence
(Flack et al., 2007), and sexual double standards resulting in greater
disapproval and stigmatisation of women who engage in casual sex
activity compared to men who engage in the very same behaviour
(Conley, Ziegler, & Moors, 2013).
Gender may also influence engagement with intimacymotivated affectionate behaviours across relational contexts.
Gender roles in the United States tend to expect men to be less
emotive and more emotionally guarded, and women to be more
affectionate and emotionally expressive (Brody, 1985; Fischer,
2000; Shields, Garner, Leone, Hadley, 2006). This is consistent
with literature highlighting gender differences in, and at times
problems with, men’s relatively less emotionally expressive interpersonal communication in friendships and couples. However,
evolutionary behavioural models predict that the behavioural
adaptations of men and women to more general evolutionary
pressures, such as the shared challenge of finding and maintaining
long-term pair-bonds, will be more similar than dissimilar
(Fisher, 2016; Gray & Garcia, 2013). Consequently, both gender
role and evolutionary theories predict that although women
may be relatively more expressive of their affection, the psychological/emotional capacity for intimacy extends across social contexts and relationship statuses for both women and men. This
prediction is supported by national U.S. data demonstrating
that men and women do not significantly differ in self-report of
subjective emotions and feelings (Simon & Nath, 2004).
Thus, evolutionary behavioural theory would predict that in
committed romantic relationships — the typical site for intimate
interpersonal connection — both men and women will want to
engage in intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours at roughly
similar rates as a strategy for maintaining long-term relationships.
However, in the context of casual sex encounters, due to sex/gender differences in potential costs associated with casual sex (see
Schmitt, Shackelford, & Buss, 2001), sex/gender differences in
intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours are likely to emerge.
Men may be expected to engage in relatively fewer affectionate
behaviours in the context of casual sex encounters than women
— in line with the male sexual strategy for short-term sexual
activity that does not involve an investment in a primary pairbond. Women, on the other hand, may be expected to engage
in relatively more intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours in
the context of casual sex encounters — in line with the female sexual strategy to encourage a more enduring primary pair-bond
with a primary partner. Alternatively, institutionalised gender
role norms may encourage both male sexual entitlement and subsequent emotional detachment during casual sex, and may also
encourage women to engage in affectionate behaviours during
casual sex as a way to psychosocially justify sexual activity not
traditionally conceptualised as ‘appropriate’ for women. Some
preliminary research supports this proposed gender difference.
While both men and women value post-sex affectionate behaviours in the context of romantic relationships (Muise, Giang,
& Impett, 2014), in the context of short-term sexual encounters
women have been shown to value affectionate behaviours more,
and also appear to require affectionate behaviours for their satisfaction more than do men (Kruger & Hughes, 2010).
Intimacy-Motivated Affectionate Behaviours During Sexual
Activity
Some researchers have found positive somatosensory responses
associated with affectionate affiliative touch between relationship

3

partners and have suggested that these responses correspond to
the attachment behaviours that create and maintain bonds
between parent and offspring (Linden, 2015). In this light, affectionate behaviours between partners are analogues to the socially
important and physiologically regulating affiliative gestures
observed in non-human animals, such as grooming, licking, and
huddling (Hertenstein, Verkamp, Kerestes, & Holmes, 2006;
Nelson & Geher, 2007; Suomi, 1995). Indeed, research suggests
that highly affectionate couples report lower stress, better mental
health, and higher relationship satisfaction (Floyd, 2002).
Similarly, couples who engage in more affectionate behaviours,
including backrubs/massages, caressing/stroking, holding hands,
kissing on the lips, and kissing on the face, were more satisfied
with their relationships (Gulledge, Gulledge, & Stahmann, 2003).
Several studies have suggested that affectionate behaviours like
touch and foreplay impact the sexual satisfaction of couples
(Muise, Giang, & Impett, 2014). Van Anders, Edelstein, Wade,
and Samples-Steele (2013) found that three-quarters of their participants reported that cuddling was involved in the initiation of
sexual activity, and many reported that cuddling was sexually
arousing to them. In a multinational study of mid- to later-life
adults, those in relationships who reported more frequent kissing
and cuddling with their partner also reported overall greater sexual satisfaction (Heiman et al., 2011). In another large study of
couples in the United States, those who reported more hugging/
cuddling after sexual activity also reported being more sexually
satisfied (Frederick, Lever, Gillespie, & Garcia, 2017). Finally,
another national survey of approximately 1,000 U.S. participants
currently in long-term committed romantic relationships found
that those who reported engaging in more frequent hand holding,
caressing, massaging, cuddling, spooning, and kissing also
reported higher sexual satisfaction (Gesselman et al., 2018).
This research suggests a potentially bidirectional association
between satisfaction and affectionate behaviours, possibly because
intimacy facilitates better relationships and sexual experience.
However, it is also possible that individuals and couples engage
in these affectionate behaviours because they are key elements of
the socially sanctioned context for sexual behaviour. This may
then reduce or alleviate any guilt, anxiety, or cognitive dissonance
associated with transgressive or disallowed sexual activity which, in
turn, increases the possibility of pleasure and satisfaction. These
reasons noted above are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Little is known about intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours in the context of casual sex, and less is understood about
how someone’s relationship preferences, including the relational
context within which sexual activity may expectedly occur,
might influence engagement in intimacy-motivated affectionate
behaviours in those different contexts. In a social and cultural
landscape that is both increasingly permissive of casual and
uncommitted sex, but where expressions of intimacy with casual
sex can serve as a prelude to a more committed romantic relationship (H.E. Fisher & Garcia, 2018), it is important to explore the
various motivations that may be influencing the sexual behaviours
of emerging adults in these different relational contexts. The
research literature suggests that emerging adult men and
women are navigating a variety of potential motives in their casual
sex encounters. These motives likely include erotic desire and
physical gratification, but also include the need for interpersonal
connection and intimacy beyond what is typically connoted in ‘no
strings attached’ casual sex. Clearly, a wide variety of theoretical
and empirical questions remain regarding the role intimacy and
related affectionate behaviours play in casual sex encounters.

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4

Current Study
The overarching goal of the current study was to better understand the preferences of emerging adults for intimacy-motivated
affectionate behaviours in their sexual relationships. First, we
assessed emerging adults’ attitudes toward one particular and
widespread intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviour: cuddling.
We then determined whether attitudes toward cuddling varied
by gender. Next, we assessed whether the desire for affiliative
behaviours varied by the relational context of sexual activity
(i.e., no context given, a casual sex encounter, or a traditional
romantic relationship), and whether this difference also varied
by gender. The existence of differences would suggest that future
studies exploring questions related to concepts like sexual attitudes or sexual motivation must take care to include relational
context in their studies. Finally, we anticipated that the preference
for intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviour during sex would
be influenced by participants’ preferred relationship context. If
this is the case, it suggests that the need for intimacy is not
only found in the context of a committed romantic relationship,
or a casual sex encounter that is on its way to becoming a committed romantic relationship, but may also be found within
uncommitted casual sex encounters that are desired for being
just that — casual and uncommitted. To explore these questions
in greater detail, the following hypotheses were proposed:
Hypothesis 1a: In the absence of information about relationship
context, most participants will report that they enjoy intimacymotivated affectionate behaviours (e.g., cuddling/intimately
embracing).
Hypothesis 1b: In the absence of information about relationship
context, women will report that they enjoy intimacy-motivated
affectionate behaviours (e.g., cuddling/intimately embracing)
more than will men.
Hypothesis 2a: Most participants will report greater liking of
intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours during sexual activity
in the context of traditional committed romantic relationships
than in the context of an uncommitted casual sex encounter (a
sexual hookup).
Hypothesis 2b: In the context of a casual sex encounter (a sexual
hookup), women will report greater liking of intimacy-motivated
affectionate behaviours during sex than will men.
Hypothesis 3: Participants will report greater desire for intimacymotivated affectionate behaviours during sexual activity in their
preferred relationship context.

Methods
Participants
The initial sample included 672 participants, ranging in age from
18 years to 61 years (M = 20.0 years, SD = 3.8 years). However,
because our investigation centred around the experiences of emerging adults, we restricted our sample to those 25 years old or
younger. This sample included 639 participants, of whom
38.2% (n = 244) were men and 61.7% (n = 394) were women.
One participant did not specify their gender. Because our hypotheses included tests of gender differences, we removed this person

Justin R. Garcia et al.

from the final dataset. Our final sample (N = 638) had a mean age
of 19.54 years (SD = 1.32 years). The majority of participants
identified as White/Caucasian (62.4%), followed by Asian/Asian
American (13.0%), Black/African American (12.1%), Hispanic
(8.0%), and ‘Other’ (4.5%). Most participants (82.8%) identified
their sexual orientation as exclusively heterosexual, followed
by predominantly heterosexual (11.9%), bisexual (2.7%),
predominantly homosexual (0.6%), exclusively homosexual
(1.4%), and non-sexual (0.6%). Sixty-three percent of participants (n = 400; 62.4% of men, 63.4% of women) reported having
had a casual sex experience (e.g., hookups, friends with benefits)
in the past.
Procedure
Data for the current study were collected via a web-based questionnaire, administered electronically through StudentVoice
(now known as CampusLabs), a higher-education assessment
provider. StudentVoice randomly generated a sample of 1,000
undergraduate email addresses from the population of approximately 12,000 undergraduates attending the target U.S. northeast
state university at that time. To protect potential participants and
maintain complete anonymity, this list was not shared with the
researchers (thus, no comparisons can be made between responders and non-responders). A voluntary recruitment email was
sent to these 1,000 students requesting their participation in the
study and providing a link to the web-based survey. Potential participants were notified that the study was completely anonymous
and that they could skip questions they did not wish to answer.
Students (n = 707) responded to the invitation by clicking the
emailed link to the study description and agreeing to the
informed consent page; of those, 35 initial respondents did not
continue to complete a majority of the survey. A total of 672
participants continued to complete the survey, providing the initial dataset used here. All study procedures were approved by the
university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB).
Questionnaire
The questions for this study were included as part of a larger
self-report questionnaire containing demographic information,
personality scales, and romantic and sexual attitudes and behaviours. The questionnaire focused on experiences and motivations
surrounding hookup behaviour. At the start of questions about
sexual hookup behaviour, participants were given the following
priming definition: ‘A hookup is a sexual encounter between people who are not dating or in a relationship, and where a more
traditional romantic relationship is NOT an explicit condition
of the encounter.’
Sociodemographics
Participants were asked a series of sociodemographic questions,
including age (in years), sex/gender (male, female), year in school,
racial and ethnic background, socio-economic status, and sexual
orientation.
Affectionate behaviours
The likelihood to engage in intimacy-motivated affectionate
behaviours was initially assessed by the question, ‘Do you like
to engage in cuddling/intimate embracing with others?’ with
independent responses of Yes or No. The desire for these behaviours during sexual activity in different relational contexts was

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Journal of Relationships Research

5

Table 1. Percentage of People Who Would Engage in Each Affectionate Behaviour, By Sexual Relationship Context and Participants’ Preferred Relationship Type
Percentage of people who would engage in each behaviour, by relationship context
Romantic relationship

Casual sex encounter/Hookup

Cuddle

Spend the night
and cuddle

Eye
gazing

Foreplay

Cuddle

Spend the night
and cuddle

Eye
gazing

Foreplay

Prefer romantic
relationship

98.3%

95.7%

92.1%

96.2%

57.1%

41.0%

26.3%

76.3%

Prefer casual sex

96.2%

92.4%

84.7%

96.9%

68.2%

53.0%

31.8%

93.9%

All

97.2%

93.7%

89.0%

95.1%

58.0%

42.3%

27.1%

78.7%

Prefer romantic
relationship

98.0%

96.7%

90.7%

96.7%

48.0%

33.6%

23.7%

75.5%

Prefer casual sex

96.4%

91.6%

89.0%

96.3%

63.9%

48.2%

34.9%

90.4%

All

97.1%

93.8%

90.0%

95.9%

52.7%

37.8%

27.0%

80.4%

Prefer romantic
relationship

98.4%

95.3%

92.8%

95.9%

61.4%

44.6%

27.6%

76.7%

Prefer casual sex

95.9%

93.9%

77.6%

98.0%

75.5%

61.2%

26.5%

All

97.5%

94.6%

89.3%

95.9%

61.8%

45.9%

27.5%

Overall sample

Men

Women

further assessed by asking participants two additional sets of
questions later in the questionnaire, ‘If you were in a traditional
romantic relationship with someone … ?’ and ‘If you were
engaging in an uncommitted sexual hookup with someone … ?’
Each of these questions was followed by: ‘Would you want to cuddle with him or her?’; ‘Would you want to spend the night and
cuddle with him or her after sexual activity?’; ‘Would you want
to engage in foreplay?’; and ‘Would you enjoy looking deep
into his or her eyes?’. Each item had response options of Yes
and No. The different behaviours — cuddling, foreplay, eye
gazing, cuddling and co-sleeping after sex (with the possibility
of social interactions in the morning) — were intended to reflect
increasing levels of intimacy.
Preferred relationship type
Participants were also asked ‘At this point in your life, which type
of relationship would you prefer?’ with independent response
options of (1) Traditional romantic relationship, (2) Hookup/
casual sex/friends with benefits, or (3) Neither.

Results
Affectionate Behaviours
Hypothesis 1 predicted that in the absence of information about
preferred relationship context, (a) most participants would report
that they like cuddling/intimate embracing, but (b) more women
than men would report liking cuddling/intimate embracing.
Hypothesis 1a was confirmed. Most participants (95.4%; 94.5%
of men, 95.9% of women) reported that they liked cuddling/
intimate embracing with others. However, no significant differences between men and women were observed (t628 = 0.80,
p = .42, d = 0.06) and Hypothesis 1b, therefore, was not supported.

100%
79.2%

Engagement in Affectionate Behaviours During Sexual Activity
by Relational Context
Hypothesis 2 predicted (a) that most participants would report
greater liking of intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours during sex in the context of traditional romantic relationships than in
casual sex encounters, but that (b) in the context of casual sex
encounters, women would like engaging in these behaviours
more than men.
In the context of a traditional romantic relationship, most participants — 89.0% to 97.2%, regardless of gender — reported that
they liked cuddling/intimate embracing during sex, would want to
spend the night after sex to cuddle, enjoyed looking deeply into
their partner’s eyes, and would want to engage in foreplay before
sex. As shown in Table 1, in the context of a casual sex encounter,
however, responses were much more varied, ranging from 27.1%
to 78.7% of participants liking or wanting to engage in these
behaviours. We conducted four McNemar’s tests to determine
whether the proportion of participants who reported liking or
wanting to engage in each of the behaviours varied significantly
depending on the relational context in which the sex took place.
Results of all four tests indicated that participants reported a
greater likelihood of liking or wanting to engage in each of the
affectionate behaviours in the context of romantic relationship
than a casual sex encounter (all ps < .001). Hypothesis 2a was
supported.
To address Hypothesis 2b, four chi-square tests were conducted with sex/gender as the independent variable and whether
participants were likely, or wanted, to engage in the behaviour
(yes/no) as the dependent variable. Odds ratios and 95% confidence intervals were calculated from the contingency tables produced from the chi-square analyses. Only two sex/gender
differences emerged. Women were nearly 1.5 times more likely
than men to like cuddling/intimate embracing in the context of

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6

a casual sex encounter, χ2(1, 634) = 5.13, p < 0.05; OR = 1.45, 95%
CI [1.05, 2.01]. Additionally, women were 1.4 times more likely
than men to want to spend the night and cuddle in the context
of a casual sex encounter, χ2(1, 631) = 4.03, p < .05; OR = 1.40,
95% CI [1.01, 1.94]. No significant sex/gender differences
emerged for wanting to engage in foreplay before sex, χ2(1,
630) = 0.13, p = 0.72; OR = 0.93, 95% CI [0.62, 1.39], or enjoying
looking deeply into partner’s eyes, χ2(1, 634) = 0.02, p = 0.89;
OR = 1.03, 95% CI [0.72, 1.47], in the context of a casual sex
encounter. Hypothesis 2b was only partially supported.
Preferred Relationship Type
Both men and women indicated a preference for a traditional
romantic relationship. When asked the type of relationship they
would prefer, 74.7% (62.7% of men, 82.3% of women) reported
that they would prefer a traditional romantic relationship over a
hookups/casual sex/friends with benefits (20.9%; 34.0% of men,
12.6% of women) or neither relationship type (4.4%; 3.3% of
men, 5.1% of women).
Interaction of Preferred Relationship Type, Relational Context
of Sexual Activity, and Intimacy-Motivated Affectionate
Behaviours
Finally, Hypothesis 3 predicted that overall, participants would
report greater desire for intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours during sexual activity in the relational context corresponding to their preferred relationship type. Because of the strong
preference for intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours in the
context of a romantic relationship, splitting the sample by sex/
gender resulted in some cell sizes smaller than 20 (an understood
threshold standard) for some of the outcome measures.
Consequently, sex/gender was excluded from these final analyses.
Four chi-square tests were conducted, with preferred relationship type as the independent variable and each of the four
intimacy-motived affectionate behaviours as dependent variables.
From the contingency tables produced in the chi-square testing,
we calculated odds ratios and 95% confidence intervals. The 28
participants who indicated they wanted neither type of relationship were excluded from analyses.
Hypothesis 3 was partially supported in the casual sex context.
Those who preferred casual sex encounters were approximately
1.6 times as likely as those who preferred romantic relationships
to like cuddling/intimate embracing, χ2(1, 603) = 5.24, p < .05;
OR = 1.61, 95% CI [1.07, 2.42], and to want to spend the night
and cuddle, χ2(1, 600) = 6.03, p < .05; OR = 1.62, 95% CI [1.10,
2.39], after sex. Those preferring casual sex encounters were
nearly five times, χ2(1, 600) = 20.19, p < .001; OR = 4.82, 95% CI
[2.29, 10.16], as likely to enjoy engaging in foreplay with a sex
partner than were those preferring a romantic relationship.
However, there was no significant difference between those preferring casual sex encounters or romantic relationships in enjoying eye gazing with a sex partner, χ2(1, 603) = 1.56, p = .21; OR =
1.31, 95% CI [0.86, 1.99].
In an attempt to increase the validity of participants’ attitudinal responses, we restricted the sample to only those participants who reported having engaged in casual sex in the past
and reran each of the analyses. Only one chi-square test was significant at p < .05. Those preferring casual sex encounters were
again over four times more likely to enjoy engaging in foreplay
with a sex partner than were those preferring romantic

Justin R. Garcia et al.

relationships, χ2(1, 383) = 8.81, p < .01; OR = 4.37, 95% CI [1.53,
12.51]. Although non-significant, those preferring casual sex
encounters were around 1.6 times as likely as those preferring
romantic relationships to like cuddling with a sex partner, χ2[1,
385] = 3.37, p = .07; OR = 1.59, 95% CI [0.97, 2.61]. Those preferring casual sex encounters were around 1.4 times as likely as those
preferring romantic relationships to want to spend the night and
cuddle with a sex partner, χ2(1, 383) = 1.98, p = .16; OR = 1.38,
95% CI [0.88, 2.18]. Last, those preferring casual sex encounters
were around 1.3 times as likely as those preferring romantic relationships to enjoy eye gazing with a sex partner, χ2(1, 385) = 1.48,
p = .22; OR = 1.34, 95% CI [0.83, 2.17].

Discussion
The claim that casual sex is just sex (i.e., truly ‘no strings attached’
sexual activity) and devoid of other emotional factors, or fulfilling
other interpersonal motivations, while widespread, has received
little empirical interrogation. Those few studies that have investigated these issues have suggested that within casual sex encounters, many men and women are attempting to manage multiple
sexual and romantic desires — such as emotional gratification,
relational and emotional connection, or desire to initiate a romantic relationship (e.g., Epstein, Calzo, Smiler, & Ward, 2009; Garcia
& Reiber, 2008; Snapp, Lento, Ryu, & Rosen, 2014). However,
how, and the extent to which, each of these occurs remains poorly
understood.
The current study explores the hypothetical occurrence of
intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours in the contexts of
both a committed traditional romantic relationship and an
uncommitted casual sex encounter (casual sex, sexual hookups,
friends with benefits), in a sample of U.S. emerging adult college
students. While several studies have pointed to the role of romantic desires and outcomes associated with casual sex behaviour
(e.g., Garcia & Fisher, 2015; Garcia & Reiber, 2008; Regan &
Dreyer, 1999), relatively little research has explored how men
and women pursue intimacy in different sexual contexts, particularly those that are ‘casual’ and are thus generally presumed to be
less intimate.
The current study is an initial investigation into intimacymotivated affectionate behaviours, or what may be conceptualised
as interpersonal affiliative behaviours, to promote close relationships and intimacy. We explored whether the desire to engage
in these affectionate behaviours during sexual activity is influenced by the relational context of the sex, the person’s preference
for particular relationship types — casual or romantic — and further by participant’s sex/gender. Results suggested that in a general and decontextualised sense, most people enjoy engaging in
intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours during sex, particularly cuddling (Hypothesis 1a). Additionally, when relational context was given, participants were more likely to want to engage in
intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours during sexual activity
in the context of committed romantic relationships than in the
context of uncommitted casual sex encounters (Hypothesis 2a).
Contrary to Hypotheses 1b and 2b, however, there were no sex/
gender differences in either the wanting or liking of affectionate
behaviours or in the desire to engage in these behaviours in the
context of a casual sex encounter. Finally, results suggested that
participants who preferred casual sex encounters (compared to
romantic relationships) were more likely to engage in intimacymotivated affectionate behaviours during sex in the context of

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Journal of Relationships Research

casual sex encounters than were participants who preferred
romantic relationships (Hypothesis 3).
There are several important observations to be drawn here.
First, as stated at the start, traditional romantic relationships are
indeed sites of relatively more intimacy-motivated affectionate
behaviours. However, with more than half of participants indicating a desire to cuddle/intimately embrace in a casual sex encounter, we must recognise that for many of the young men and
women who participated, uncommitted casual sex encounters
are also sites from which to engage in and obtain affection and
by doing so possibly seek and fulfill their need for intimacy.
This is counter to popular representations of, and prevailing sexual scripts related to, casual sex. As such, this finding also further
highlights that people’s sexual lives (including their casual sexual
lives), as well as their need for and pursuit of intimacy, are more
nuanced than generally represented.
Counter to predominant sexual scripts related to sex/gender
roles that suggest the existence of a sexual double standard, as
well as predictions derived from evolutionary sexual strategies theory, men and women did not differ in their desire to engage in
most intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours during casual
sex encounters. The desire of women to cuddle/intimately
embrace more than men was the only exception, and this effect
size was small (r = .09). This suggests that while many of our existing representations of casual sex predict sex/gender differences in
both sexual behaviour and sexual attitudes, and in giving and
receiving affection, emerging adult men and women may have
developed new sexual and relational scripts related to both the
context of casual sex, as well as to where one can seek and potentially fulfill the need for intimacy and affection.
The current findings echo those of other studies on casual sex,
demonstrating that despite popular discourse, the reasons people
engage in uncommitted casual sex are diverse, and that casual
sex encounters are not solely motivated by the need for sexual
gratification or pleasure. For some, if not many, casual sex is not
simply about sexual activity, but simultaneously about exploring
the edges of their behavioural repertoires, social experiences, pleasure, sexual desires, and intimacy. Indeed, in a large national U.S.
sample, both men and women reported significant amounts of
both sexual satisfaction and emotional satisfaction across a wide
variety of committed and uncommitted relationship contexts
(Mark, Garcia, & Fisher, 2015). Taken together, the available evidence suggests that for many people, engagement in sexual hookups involves erotic activities, experiences with affectionate
behaviours, romantic and emotional motivations, relatively less
sexual pleasure than in a romantic relationship, yet still considerable sexual and emotional satisfaction. Even more, in some cases
casual sex encounters can result in enduring relationships. In
sum, uncommitted casual sexual encounters can, and for many
do, involve a variety of affectionate factors that require further
theoretical and empirical investigation. Scholars must challenge
the notion that the myriad forms of casual sex emerging adults
engage in today are solely experiences of sexual pleasure and fun,
or substance induced follies, absent of romance or intimacy.
The current study also uncovered an important methodological point regarding the desire for the assessed intimacymotived affectionate behaviours varying by relational context.
Early in the survey participants were asked, in the general
sense, if they liked to engage in cuddling with others. In this general sense, 95% of participants indicated yes. But later in the survey, when participants were provided with relationship contexts
and asked about various affectionate behaviours, the rates shifted

7

substantially — with the rates for wanting to cuddle in a romantic
relationship being slightly higher, but the rates for wanting to
cuddle in a casual sex encounter being markedly lower. This highlights the importance of clarifying specific contexts of behaviours,
and when possible, considering both committed and uncommitted relationship contexts in sexuality research (e.g., Garcia et al.,
2015; Mark et al., 2015; Wentland & Reissing, 2011). When context is not specified, respondents may either assume a particular
context for questions when study stimuli do not specify, or may
simply be unable to provide accurate information regarding the
realities of their romantic and sexual lives.
While affectionate behaviours have profound effects on
romantic relationship function and stability (Frederick et al.,
2017; Heiman et al., 2011; Muise et al., 2014; van Anders et al.,
2013), their role in casual sex has been much less understood.
The current findings suggest that a participant’s preferred relationship type had inconsistent associations with affectionate behaviours in different relationship contexts, and this preference
moderates desire for intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours
in different relationship contexts. While limited by variation in
sample size and preferred relationship type — we could not test
for differences within a romantic relationship context because
nearly everyone reported that they would like to engage in affectionate behaviours in the romantic relationship context — those
who preferred casual sex were significantly more likely to want
to engage in three of the four assessed affectionate behaviours
during an uncommitted casual sex encounter than were those
who preferred romantic relationships. Thus, for some emerging
adults who prefer casual sex encounters, they may be obtaining
affection, and with it aspects of intimacy, within these uncommitted contexts and in the absence of romantic commitment or an
exclusive romantic relationship. This is consistent with research
suggesting that the behavioural acts of affection themselves,
even in the face of varying intent and social context, provide
some of the same physiological and emotional benefits associated
with intimacy as more typically understood to occur in committed relationships (Horan & Booth-Butterfield, 2011).
Longitudinal research has shown that when people engage in
casual sex for internal autonomous reasons (i.e., because they
wanted to) rather than external non-autonomous reasons (i.e.,
because of social pressure or lack of intentionality) they are
much less likely to experience negative outcomes associated
with their casual sex history, such as low self-esteem, depression
and anxiety, or physical symptoms (Vrangalova, 2015). For
example, in a sample of Canadian university students, those casual sex encounters that include heavy alcohol and/or drug use and
non-use of condoms, and those characterised by poor quality sex,
were more likely to be associated with sexual regret (M.L. Fisher,
Worth, Garcia, & Meredith, 2012). Correspondingly, those casual
sex encounters characterised by some degree of agency and intentionality tend to have better outcomes.
While speculative, it is possible that for many emerging adults,
engaging in affectionate behaviour during an uncommitted casual
sex encounter is not an a priori condition of one’s desires. For
some, affection is part of a sexual script and/or a source of pleasure, regardless of the sexual relationship context it is experienced
within. This may suggest that those who are engaging in affectionate behaviours achieve some degree of intimacy, but are not necessarily relationship-oriented individuals who solely use casual sex
to achieve their relationship outcome. Rather, this may suggest
less linear patterns, wherein affectionate behaviours, intimacy,
and relationship outcomes are part of a dynamic biopsychosocial

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8

process that emerges with sexual activity, perhaps somewhat
spontaneously and in response to aspects of the experience, rather
than a sequential series of events associated with specific pathways
for different sociosexual orientations and strategies.
Limitations and Future Directions
The current study pursued exploratory hypotheses in a sample of
college students to further inquire into the role of intimacymotivated affectionate behaviours in casual sex encounters. The
current study has several limitations that require further exploration in future research. Only a limited number of affectionate
behaviours were available to consider in the current study. There
are no widely used measures of affiliative or attachment behaviours
in humans, and while our current assessment is an initial attempt
based on theory and previous literature on social behaviour, a deeper investigation into various behavioural expressions — ranging
from affective touch to particular sexual acts — would be informative. Future work should expand upon this list to capture a wider
variety of affectionate behaviours involved in people’s romantic
and sexual lives (e.g., Frederick et al., 2017). Further, while the current study importantly included two sexual relationship contexts
(committed traditional romantic relationship and uncommitted
casual sex encounters), future research should expand this list further to include a wider variety of committed and uncommitted
relationship contexts that people express their sexuality within
(e.g., Mark et al., 2015; Wentland & Reissing, 2011), including
the possibility of holding multiple preferences and engaging in
multiple types of sexual relationships at the same time.
While the current study used a behavioural approach, previous
research has also examined the role of attachment styles and casual sexual activity (e.g., Garneau, Olmstead, Pasley, & Fincham,
2013; Schneider & Katz, 2017; Snapp et al., 2014). Future work
may benefit from inclusion of attachment and other psychological
traits (e.g., Gute & Eshbaugh, 2008; O’Brien, Geher, Gallup,
Garcia, & Kaufman, 2010; Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000;
Trobst, Herbst, Masters, & Costa, 2002) to help further explain
the diversity of behavioural, emotional, and intimate factors
involved in people’s sexual experiences across relationship contexts. For instance, it may be possible that attachment styles are
associated with specific types of affectionate behaviours, and
what type of meaning individuals attribute to those behaviours
in different relationship contexts. Future work should also explore
other individual sociodemographic factors that influence sexuality, particularly differences and similarities across sexual orientations, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic class.
Future research will also benefit from employing dyadic methodology to questions of affectionate behaviours across relationship
contexts. One challenge for both researchers and sexually active
emerging adults that remains is the degree to which affectionate
behaviours are understood as interpersonal dyadic communication (much like other forms of both verbal and non-verbal/nonlinguistic sexual communication during and after sexual activity;
e.g., Denes, 2012; Jonason, Betteridge, & Kneebone, 2016; Levin,
2006; Muise et al., 2014). That is, whether both partners consent
to intimacy in an otherwise presumed casual sex context, where
for some, intimacy is not part of their culturally established sexual
script. Moreover, it remains unclear what one’s partner understands affectionate behaviours to mean with regard to interest
in a particular relationship trajectory following or as a result of
a casual sex encounter. While one partner may want and consent
to affectionate behaviours in a casual sex context, to another

Justin R. Garcia et al.

partner this may seem too intimate in an uncommitted context
or it may indicate, via non-verbal communication, a perceived
interest in a more enduring romantic relationship, despite this
not necessarily being the intention of some partners. The ability
to interpret what a partner is attempting to convey with their affectionate behaviours during casual sex, if anything, requires individual and dyadic investigation around what this means, how it is
understood, and whether and when it is shared. This interpersonal
dyadic communication aspect raises several questions about how
casual sex partners communicate about consent, desire, intent,
and post-sex expectations. These questions also intersect with
other complex aspects of casual sex and sexuality among emerging
adults, including how sexual consent is generally communicated
and understood (see Muehlenhard, Humphreys, Jozkowski, &
Peterson, 2016). Issues of consent and coercion extend to why
young men and especially young women engage in sexual behaviours in uncommitted contexts that they perceive as normative
but that they do not necessarily feel comfortable engaging in
(i.e., Lambert, Kahn, & Apple, 2003; Reiber & Garcia, 2010).
Last, the current study queried participants about what affectionate behaviours they wish to engage in, as a hypothetical.
Future work may wish to explore what behaviours participants
want, what they actually have engaged in, and whether engagement
predicts the types of emotional and relational outcomes that follow
sexual encounters. While the hypothetical scenarios assessed here
provide indication of preferences, people’s previous experiences
may also bias their framing of romantic and sexual encounters
(e.g., such as relabelling failed attempts at dating as hookups;
Epstein et al., 2009). By conducting secondary analyses among
those with a history of having ever had casual sex, we somewhat
controlled for such a possibility in the current study, but future
work could expand on this issue. Similarly, it will also be important
for future work to better understand the relationship between motivations and desires with experiences and outcomes.
Our findings show that many emerging adults engage in
intimacy-motivated affectionate behaviours in a variety of relational contexts, including outside of a committed romantic
relationship. For some, this remains ‘just sex’ with or without
inclusion of affiliative behaviours, but for others, intimacy motivations may play a significant role in initiating and/or the outcomes of a casual sex encounter. Just as some people engage in
casual sex encounters seeking intimacy and hoping for romantic
outcomes (Epstein et al., 2009; Garcia & Reiber, 2008; Lyons
et al., 2014; Regan & Dreyer, 1999), others go into a sexual
encounter for ‘just sex’ and may discover desires for a romantic
relationship as an unexpected result of that casual sex encounter
(Garcia & Fisher, 2015; Owen & Fincham, 2011). Pursuing these
intimacy-related facets and types of questions will allow researchers and clinicians to better understand the psychoemotional
aspects of people’s sexual lives across different sexual relationship
contexts, and how men and women today negotiate a wide variety
of emotional and sexual desires, experiences, and outcomes.

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